Appreciating the Beauty of the Earth

© Ruth Bancewicz

In my reading of the natural theology literature I’m finding myself drawn to the pre-enlightenment scientists and theologians. Theologian Jame Schaefer has written about the appreciation that a number of patristic and medieval theologians showed for the beauty of the earth. In their writing they express awe, wonder, delight and joy in their study of nature.

‘diversity of beauty in sky and earth and sea…the dark shades of woods, the colour and fragrance of flowers; the countless different species of living creatures of all shapes and sizes…the mighty spectacle of the sea itself, putting on its changing colours like different garments, now green, with all the many varied shades, now purple, now blue.’

Augustine, The City of God

For these theologians, careful study of God’s creation is almost essential. It’s commonplace for them (and the early scientists such as Bacon and Pascal, that I recently read about in Nancy Frankenberry’s book) to express great thankfulness that they are able to ‘read God’s book of nature’, unlike the foolish ones who pass all these delights by.

Schaefer outlines five ways of appreciating creation:

  • Affective appreciation – simply delighting in what is seen.
  • Affective-cognitive appreciation – a deeper, scientific study of nature leads to even greater joy for the beholder.
  • Cognitive appreciation – thinking in more abstract ways about the beauty of the whole interconnected universe.
  • Incomprehensibility – being bowled over by the magnitude and complexity of the universe and everything in it.
  • The sacramental quality of the physical world – the world God has created mediates something of God’s presence and character to us.

One of my favourites among the theologians covered in the paper was an unnamed Cistercian who wrote extensively about the abbey where he lived and the surrounding countryside. He was obviously very happy with his vocation, and showed a good understanding of the interconnectedness of the different factors – water, weather, crops etc – almost an early ecology. The other was Albert the Great, teacher of Aquinas, who wrote on ‘the importance of observation and experimentation in field and laboratory studies of animals, plants, metals, and inorganic elements’. He conducted field studies, and ‘legitimised the study of the natural world as a science within the Christian tradition’. For him, appreciation of nature had both cognitive and emotional aspects.

That I might train my senses to appreciate the world more is obviously not a new thought to a biologist.  But Schaefer’s very clearly defined connection between science, a more intuitive appreciation of nature, and faith is interesting and extremely relevant today, when much of the world is being lost to the bulldozer. As Schaefer says, ‘At present, sacramental beholders are desperately needed.’

3 thoughts on “Appreciating the Beauty of the Earth

  1. Bill Saunders January 8, 2012 / 2:12 pm

    Well done Ruth, and we thank God for your life and work [as we do for our daughter Ruth who is doing a Phd in Law & Ethics associated with research on the commercial use of genetic data]. Keep playing, “Hide and Seek” with the Lord in His Creation, you will always be onto a winner – because He loves to be found by those who love Him.

    Schaefer’s five ways of appreciating creation are also wonderfully modelled in the parallel works of a post-enlightenment couple:

    Bishop John Inge of Worcester in his book, ” A Christian theology of place:…

    & his wife Denise in her book: Happiness & Holiness…

    A lot of people are talking up doom and gloom for the World and with a sense of impending disaster becoming more reactive and fretful and hasty, but we believe that abandoned to Divine providence we have all we need at hand to love Him and be Holy – therefore we will not be hurried, and will enjoy the gift of creative life. Being-belonging and becoming what He desires is enough advenTure for any lifetime, until He comes.

    We pray God’s blessing on you and yours as He rewards you for earnestly & diligently seeking Him,

    Bill, Margaret and Ruth Saunders


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